On March 24th, 2019 a group of around 50 people of all ages gathered in Obuse Town, Nagano Pref., to envision the ideal school lunch thirty years in the future. The event represented one of the first steps for a new civic food network, the Obuse Food Policy Council (Shoku to Nou no Mirai Kaigi), to develop food policy together. FEAST has been working in Northern Nagano Prefecture for some time and partnered with Obuse Food Policy Council in the development of the event. FEAST also partnered with the NAGANO Nou to Shoku no Kai NPO (NAGANO農と食の会), the Seikatsu Club Obuse Branch (生活クラブ小布施支部), and the Food Literacy and Experiential Education Collaboration NPO (NPO 食育体験教室・コラボ) to host the event. Participants ranged from farmers, city officials, community organizers, parents, and elementary, middle, and high school students.
Why school lunch?
As FEAST member Iwashima Fumi presented in her talk at the workshop, school lunch in Japan has an interesting history and has evolved a lot over time. School lunch holds a special place in Japanese society and not only educates children about food culture and taste, but reinforces the priorities of the society of the time. For example, after World War II, school lunches were free of charge and provided for every elementary student, whereas now the shift toward larger-scale lunch preparation centers and cost-saving is more common. A push toward including more locally-sourced ingredients on lunch menus is evident, but is it enough? As Japan moves into a future with fewer students, more regional economic precarity, and a deteriorating natural environment, a reassessment of what school lunch is meant to provide and the role it can play in society is warranted.
In true transdisciplinary fashion, the decision to envision future ideal school lunches was decided upon through deliberation between FEAST members and local organizers. Many discussions were held about a visioning target that would appeal to a large group of people beyond the active group (See this blog post for more details about “visioning”). The Obuse Food Policy Council was established in the fall of 2018 and was eager to hold a visioning workshop to kickstart their efforts to develop sustainable and innovative local food policy for their town. Local government officials, including the mayor Mr. Ryozo Ichimura, have been very supportive and there are high levels of engagement. Many involved in the discussions argued that the scale of Obuse is much smaller than, for example Nagano City, and that implementing new food policy on school lunches might be a smoother process. NAGANO Nou to Shoku no Kai, a diverse group of organic farmers, obento sellers, businesses, and citizen-consumers, was also supportive of the idea to focus on school lunch and hopes to take the experiences of Obuse Town and spread them through Nagano Prefecture.
Ideal visions of future school lunches
Many interesting and exciting ideas for what school lunch should be like in the future were generated at the workshop. We also had the pleasure of a graphic recorder (Aruga Yu) who did a fantastic job recording the overall discussion in an amazing artwork shown below. The visions can be divided into four themes: Core principles, Redefining the meaning of school lunch, Diet, and Innovation
-Local citizens should be given more power to decide food-related policies as they affect school lunch.
-Greater transparency in the decisions behind providing school lunches. Where is food sourced and how was it grown? What are the financial conditions behind decisions to provide a certain level of food quality?
-We see school lunch as a part of the mandatory education system – it is called “Shokuiku” (food education) after all—and, therefore, should be free for all students. Prefectural or local municipal governments should subsidize.
-Locally sourced food should be prioritized (as close to 100% as possible) to strengthen regional economic conditions.
-School lunches should be safe for both student health and the environment. Ingredients should be organic and GMOs should be avoided.
-Food waste should be eliminated throughout the school lunch value chain. Food waste should be composted or fed to livestock.
-As much as possible, more women should be represented in the decision-making processes around school lunch and hold positions of power in bodies that make these decisions.
Redefining the meaning of school education through food/lunches
Through food production and consumption, we learn valuable skills that will serve us throughout our lives. Food is a lens that helps us appreciate life and living natural systems. Life skills such as nutrition literacy, gardening, animal raising, cooking, and creating fertile soil are something everyone should know. A comprehensive educational curriculum that incorporates many elements of food production, preparation, and consumption on school grounds is ideal. One way to describe this education is through “Self-Cultivation” – how we can grow ourselves by learning about where our food comes from and how to grow healthy food.
-School grounds should have large-scale gardens and food production capacities. Growing vegetables, raising chickens, maintaining fruit orchards, growing mushrooms etc. are just some examples.
-When not in use, the swimming pool could be converted into an aquaculture tank to raise fish
-Butcher animals to learn about the responsibilities that come with taking life to feed oneself
-Students should be involved in cooking school lunches and learning recipes, gain kitchen skills
-Students should learn how to process food in valuable ways. Making the school lunch miso, pickles, etc.
-Students should be able to make their own tableware (cups, plates, bowls) to eat with and clean during lunch
-More time in the school day should be given for eating slowly, enjoying your meal with others (Convivial lunch)
What we eat for lunch influences our performance at school, educates us about the diversity of food choices, and can expose us to healthy options.
-School lunch food should acknowledge and accept food allergies and take steps to ensure that everyone can eat safely and healthily.
-School lunches should have vegetarian options—vegetarian diets are better for the environment and healthy.
-Menus should consider the importance of the microbiome and food digestion and provide foods that foster healthy gut bacteria
-When possible, wild meat (deer, boar) from local sources should be part of the menu
-Menus should be more diverse and feature more international foods as a way to learn about food culture and taste
-Tea should be provided at lunch time besides just milk. Hot and cold options for both tea and milk should be available.
School lunches and the spaces in which students eat lunches can be part of the larger community. School lunches could be taken in many innovative directions.
-School lunches should be eaten together in a cafeteria
-The cafeteria is open to the public and anyone can eat together. Increase communication between the public and the school. School serves as a food hub (1).
-The cafeteria could be used as a community kitchen (2) and members from the public could use the space for cooking classes, workshops, parties, etc.
-School lunches should be served in a buffet style where everyone can choose what they want to eat
-The option for eating outside on nice days should be possible. Spaces for picnicking on school grounds should be provided.
-Student birthdays should be celebrated in some way at lunch, maybe through a special desert
-Occasional special menus could be curated by local chefs. School lunch could more like going to a nice restaurant.
-Recipes of school lunch menus should be available to the public so they can replicate the menus at home.
This next step for this process is to develop concrete action plans through backcasting exercises that will be submitted to the local government in Obuse for consideration. We will be sure to keep the FEAST audience updated!
(1) A food hub is defined by USDA as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”
(2) A definition of a community kitchen is “a group of people who meet on a regular basis to plan, cook and share healthy, affordable meals.” (Community Kitchen Australia)